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UNHEALTHY COMPETITION

part 1 of 2
Every generation or so--most recently in 1976--the Bijou Creek, which runs north through the eastern plains from Colorado Springs, pours into the South Platte River in such volume that it causes the river to run backward. Its waters swell and cascade over the railroad embankments and into the small towns that line the Platte northeast of Denver.

Most of the time, however, the Bijou is just another dry ditch cutting through the sagebrush, a river of dust and stone. Over time the prevailing western winds have picked up the accumulated sand in the riverbed and swept it thirty miles to the east, several miles south of the town of Brush.

There the sediment has piled up into undulating sand hills, which for thousands of years have soaked up pure plains rainwater and stored it like giant sponges. In 1955 Brush took advantage of this geological happenstance and sank five wells into the sand hills, "finding the best drinking water in the county," according to a description at the time.

Just eight miles upstream, Fort Morgan, the Morgan County seat, has been forced to tap directly into the Platte for its drinking water. Although the supply is virtually limitless, agricultural runoff and other pollutants have rendered Fort Morgan's drinking water considerably less pure than its next-door neighbor's. The difference has become a source of pride and bragging rights for Brush.

"Brush has the most wonderful soft water," gloats Mayor Larry Coughlin, a veterinarian who has been an elected resident of city hall for more than two decades. "Fort Morgan has very hard water. And they're jealous of us because we've got great water and they have terrible water."

If only the comparative sweetness of drinking water were the sole source of contention between the two towns.

Brush and Fort Morgan have nurtured an intense civic rivalry that has defined each of the prairie towns for more than 100 years. The competition dates to at least 1889 when, in their first official contest, Fort Morgan edged out Brush in voting among settlers to determine which would be the county seat.

Since then, both municipalities have found ample opportunity to maintain the division. Fort Morgan, founded by a band of pious settlers from Greeley, outlawed the sale of alcohol right up until 1965. Brush, a wide-open cattle-driving town from the start, was glad to have the business. The towns also are home to a shut-the-store high school sports rivalry.

More recently, the competition has scuttled attempts to arrange numerous joint civic projects. Over the years, proposals to merge the two towns' country clubs, water treatment plants, airports and economic development efforts have all failed to cross the invisible boundary that traces Dobbs Bridge Road, which divides Fort Morgan's 10,000 residents from Brush's 4,500.

"We have the reputation of being the wealthiest county in the state," Morgan County Economic Development Corp. director Patti Lewis says sarcastically. "And we must be, because we have two of everything. Whatever one has, the other has to have."

Despite the occasional resigned shrugs, however, the cross-county sniping has never really become a genuine problem. Until now.

As is the case with nearly everything else, Fort Morgan and Brush have their own hospitals. Lying directly eight miles from the modern East Morgan County Hospital in Brush is the equally well-equipped Colorado Plains Medical Center in Fort Morgan.

"Why a county with a population of maybe 25,000 needs two emergency rooms, two CT scans, two MRIs, two laboratories and two rehabilitation centers is beyond me," says Lewis. "The duplication of services--the cost is astronomical."

Karen Midkiff should know. As manager of marketing and development for Mercy Medical Center of Durango, she was on the winning side of a similar, and recently resolved, battle that pitted Durango's two small hospitals against each other. Having two competing facilities in such a small community, she says, "is a waste of taxpayers' money and a drain on the system."

For years Morgan County's two hospitals have seesawed between financial success and struggle by maintaining fiercely loyal local patient bases that have fed off the towns' historic rivalry. Many families in Brush wouldn't think of patronizing Colorado Plains. In Fort Morgan, the reverse holds true.

The toe-to-toe hospital competition recently has become a drain. Apart from the overall cost escalation that comes with such close-range duplication of services, both institutions frequently must turn to the communities to raise funds for their respective sick bays. As a result, money perhaps better spent on a single facility is diluted.

The hospital rivalry also has sapped the area--Brush in particular--of physicians. Doctors who visit the area have been turned off by the strain between the two communities, officials say. The result: No babies have been delivered in Brush since last November because there are no doctors. The county's three nursing homes, which need local physicians to keep their beds full, complain that the shortage hurts them as well.

 

Morgan County's two hospitals appear particularly out of step in 1994. Health-care reform aimed at scaling back from freer-spending days seems inevitable. Traditionally, duplication of services and equipment among competing hospitals just blocks from each other has run up costs. In Colorado, such escalation was goosed by the sunsetting, in 1987, of the state's certificate of need program, which permitted officials to review a hospital's big-ticket gadget purchases and halt them if they were redundant.

Recently, some urban hospitals have begun merging in an effort to consolidate services, save money and become more competitive. Metro Denver is no exception. Last fall, for instance, Swedish Medical Center and P/SL Health Care Systems merged into a single entity.

Rural hospitals face the same pressures. In Colorado, many of them have closed or drastically cut back services. In 1990 Akron's Washington County Hospital, 22 miles southeast of Brush, mothballed its inpatient beds because it couldn't pay the bills. Today it operates solely as a nursing home and urgent-care center.

Early last year, Lutheran Health Systems, the health-care management company that runs the East Morgan County Hospital in Brush, proposed what seemed to be the perfect solution to the county's hospital standoff. The company said that it would build a brand-new regional hospital for Morgan County and that it would bear the entire $20 million cost.

But the idea of a regional medical center--as well as subsequent suggestions, such as keeping both facilities open but under one management--has not worked out. And despite strong community interest in reform, many people today say they are resigned to never seeing a new countywide hospital rise from the fields.

Many of the reasons for the flop are understandable. After years of bleeding cash, Fort Morgan's hospital, the Colorado Plains Medical Center, is now earning a generous profit. Understandably, its for-profit management company, Brim Hospitals Inc., of Portland, Oregon, does not relish the idea of now giving that up to the competition down the road.

Much of what threatens health-care reform in Morgan County, however, is simply age-old animosities and resilient memories. Anne Platt, who arrived in Brush to run the East Morgan County Hospital six months ago, says that she, for one, noticed it right away.

"It's sort of like the Hatfields and McCoys," she says. "When I first came here, it seemed like such a natural fit to consolidate. But obstacles just kept popping up."

The bad news is that the seventy-stop Chamber of Commerce tour of Brush ("Tour Brush! Historical Info. Current Features. Future Plans") has been scheduled for only five days this summer. The good news is that Stan Gray, longtime chamber activist and former car salesman, has consented to give an off-schedule turn about the town.

His house is a small one-story bungalow; like all houses in Brush, it is within several blocks of Route 34, which cuts a ruler-straight east-west line between the vast cornfields buffering Brush and Fort Morgan. Stan, who is waiting at the door, has a bit of Dave Thomas about him. A toothpick is buried deep in his mouth. Thankfully, his middle-aged brown Ford LTD has air conditioning that seems capable of outdueling the three-digit midafternoon heat.

The first stop of the Brush tour turns out to be several blocks away, at Stan's father's house. Harold Gray is 93 years old and mostly blind. Neither of these conditions has prevented him from finding his way to his screen door, where he waits impatiently for Stan.

Harold, who moved to Brush seventy years ago from Iowa to try his hand at farming, is wearing knit slacks Florida-style, pulled up high over his waist. He has heavy, dark-rimmed glasses and a wispy, paper-clip-thin mustache. After settling into the back seat, he announces that nobody should expect much help from him, chronology-wise. "I'm getting to the age where I'm not good with dates," he says. "I just pick sometime within the century and go with that."

As the tour begins, it becomes apparent that part of Stan's job will be to set up his father for devastating one-liners. It will be Harold's job to deliver them without cracking a smile while staring out the window at nothing in particular.

Stan: This is Mohrland Manufacturing, Inc. They make farm equipment, and they say they'll stand behind their manure spreaders.

Harold: But not too close.
Stan (as he drives by a new residential development--Brush's growth has caused an acute housing shortage): The streets here are all named after cattle feeders.

 

Harold: And that's no bull.
Stan (cruising by the single-runway airport): This is the Brush runway. We're going to open it as soon as we get the baggage system going.

Harold: BIA.
Stan Gray smoothly eases into chamber of commerce mode and begins to show off Brush's considerable strides into the present. For instance, beginning in 1975, with the announcement that it was building the Pawnee Power Plant there, Public Service Co. of Colorado constructed two huge generation facilities in Brush. Together they make up a healthy chunk of the town's tax base, a significant part of its skyline and about a third of the official Brush Chamber of Commerce tour.

Still, it quickly becomes apparent that the town is very much tangled up in its past. Part of the reason is that Brush's history is not so very long ago. "Sixty years ago this town still had dirt streets," Stan recalls. "People would sweep their leaves into the streets and burn them. It was a smell that you just don't get anymore. And people standing around leaning on their rakes, talking."

Many of the streets still have no stop signs. At Drover's, the restaurant attached to the Livestock Exchange, one of three cattle-trading concerns in the town, coffee is still 10 cents. And Stan is happy to relate that until shockingly recently, above a boarded-up building that once housed the Brushland Drugstore, "were some real dramatic poker games. Entire farms were won and lost." ("I don't remember anybody losing a farm," disputes Harold. "Well," Stan replies, "that's what they told me.")

A goodly number of Brush's sinners came from up the road, where Fort Morgan's founder, a churchgoing man named Abner Baker, would sell land to homesteaders only on the condition that they sign a contract agreeing not to sell liquor on it. (As late as the 1940s, Fort Morgan's schoolteachers had to sign vows of sobriety.) Meanwhile, Baker's equally pious brother Lyman founded the settlement's first newspaper, the Fort Morgan Times, and kept the town along the moral true with sharp editorials stressing abstinence.

The larger town's temperance was to Brush's financial gain. "Fort Morgan didn't want the liquor, and Brush was glad to get it," Stan explains. "Did a hell of a business, too." ("Scruples," Harold spits out from the back seat. "Misguided," Stans adds tolerantly.) Today, a single block to the south of the town's lone traffic light is still home to six bars.

Stop No. 38 on the tour is the Brush Beetdigger football stadium. Thanks to the mascot, coined in honor of what at one time was the main occupation here, the school briefly basked in the national spotlight when ESPN awarded it second place in the network's contest to find the most unusual high school team name in the country. (The Syrupmakers, of Cairo, Georgia, won.) The field is uncommonly large for a town of Brush's size. Then again, sports are uncommonly important in Morgan County.

Uncommonly successful, too. The 'Diggers placed second in the state in basketball in 1961 and again in 1963. Up the road, Fort Morgan's Maroons have enjoyed a slew of state wrestling championships, in 1969, 1973, 1980 and 1981.

Yet it is clear that football is the real sport here. In 1982 and again in 1984, the Beetdiggers won their division's state championship. For years, until Fort Morgan's size forced it into a larger division, Morgan and Brush battled for regional supremacy on the field. (The tradition recently has been revitalized, and the first exhibition contest of each season pits the two old rivals. "The game," notes Stan, "is very well attended.")

It does not come as a surprise, then, when Stan reveals that the competition between the two towns occasionally strayed off the gridiron. There was, for instance, the time in the 1940s--no one can recall the exact date, but everyone remembers the incident--when Brush physician Paul Hildebrand and Fort Morgan cattle feeder Tom Cooper exchanged words after a particularly hard-fought football game.

Stan and Harold tangle briefly over who started the fracas, but they reach an accommodation, and Stan summarizes: "Hildy said something and Cooper slugged him. Then John Ruggles, who was a friend of Hildy's, came along and hit Cooper."

Snapping out of his reverie, Stan quickly regains his chamber of commerce footing. "Of course," he adds, "there were a lot of games where nothing happened."

Harold snorts from the back of the car. "You ought to be O.J. Simpson's defense lawyer."

end of part 1


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